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Review: Doubt (2008)

Doubt (2008)

Directed by: John Patrick Shanley

Premise: A power struggle erupts in a Catholic parish and its adjoining private elementary school when a conservative nun (Meryl Streep) suspects the church’s progressive pastor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing a child. 

What Works: Doubt is an extremely well made film. The script contains lots of sharp dialogue that the actors, especially Meryl Streep, are able to deliver on. Yet, as smart and as occasionally witty as it is, the film does not give itself over to Aaron Sorkin-like sassiness that would be out of character for the religious figures in the film. Instead, it blazes a different trail, using its drollness to build character and comment upon the issues of power and tradition. The story keeps the audience on tenterhooks as effectively as any thriller and the performances sell the ambiguity of the mystery, maintaining it until the end of the film. Streep is terrific as an old school nun who believes she has figured out the world. The character is presented initially as cold and even heartless, but the script and Streep’s performance very slowly reveal the human being underneath the habit. This contrasts with Hoffman’s role as the church pastor, who is initially very warm and sociable but as the accusation is made he reveals his own sexism and harbors the possibility of evil. Amy Adams plays a young nun who is largely innocent to the world and gets caught between the two authority figures. As a result of her position, Adams gets some of the most emotionally charged moments in the film and she is able to provide the average audience member with a perspective to view the events of the story. As a technical piece, Doubt makes highly artful use out of its cinematography. For anyone looking to learn about how to effectively use lighting, staging, camera angles, or editing, this film is as good as any textbook, yet it never gets too flashy. As a piece on Catholicism, Doubt is full of interesting perspectives and presentations. The film takes place in the mid-1960s during the Vatican II council and the conflict between Hoffman and Streep’s characters brings out many of the controversies of the reforms and changes that occurred to the church at that time. Yet, enjoyment or engagement with the film’s themes is not limited to Catholics. Doubt is a portrayal of a crisis of faith that goes deeper than religion and speaks to the very moral and hierarchical structure of society and what happens to individuals and to institutions when human frailty creates cracks in that foundation. 

What Doesn’t: Those looking for a more deliberate statement on clerical abuse might find the film wanting. In the context of the film, the possibility of abuse fits into the theme of power and goodness and so it works very well. Those interested in an analysis of the broader issue ought to check out the documentary Deliver Us from Evil.

Bottom Line: Doubt is a nearly perfect film. The performances are remarkable, the technical qualities are top notch, and the story is as well written and thoughtfully executed as could be wanted.

Episode: #222 (January 11, 2009)